I’ve been accused by some people of hating Carl von Clausewitz (specifically for “slaying Clausewitzian strawmen”). Let’s go to the tape to see what I originally wrote about CvC:
"I don’t mean to slander Carl von Clausewitz here, nor do I intend to imply no one should read him. I advocate a middle ground: military officers should definitely read Clausewitz, but keep an open mind that he probably doesn’t have all the answers, or even most of them. No other intellectual field relies so heavily on one single thinker..."
I don’t hate CvC; I merely believe that military strategy and the study of war rely much too heavily on one thinker. And have no doubt, American military science/strategic studies relies too much on Clausewitz. Some have called it a “German fetish”, and I can’t disagree. Take Dr. Colin Gray writing about military theory [pdf] in the Strategic Studies Quarterly :
“A true glory of the three preeminent classics of strategic thought—Clausewitz’s On War, Sun Tzu’s Art of War, and Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War—is that they tell us all that we need to know about war’s unchanging nature. Read properly, they explain the nature of all war in all periods, among all belligerents, employing all weapons, and deploying an endless array of declared motives."
The Infinity Journal dedicated an entire article to Clausewitz, with pretty much the same thesis:
“When it comes to the study of war and strategy--and despite the vast array of writings penned by brilliant men and women, both historical and contemporary--at the center of it all we still find Clausewitz...The result was success in the formulation of the foundations of a theory of war and strategy that no other theorist has before or since been able to rival...as far as observing, comprehending, and demonstrating via writings the fundamentals of war, Clausewitz is as close to a level of perfection as any theorist of war and strategy has so far been able to reach.”
At first, this seems reasonable. One thinker (Clausewitz), or three (Thucydides and Sun Tzu as well), have completely understood, defined and explained military strategy to their readers. But stop for a moment to really ponder this sentiment. Has one person ever dominated a field as thoroughly as Carl von Clausewitz? The Infinity Journal’s A.E. Stahl says they have:
“When we reflect on other areas of complex interests and activities, we can confidently...point to a number of intellectual giants that have conquered a wide array of vital subjects. They have graced posterity with considerable understanding and guidance that we rarely question.”
Except that’s entirely not true.
Take this list of the founders or kings of various academic disciplines:
Evolutionary biology Darwin
Behavioral Psychology Pavlov
Realist Political Philosophy Machiavelli
Liberal Political Philosophy Locke
Economics Adam Smith
Physics Copernicus then Newton then Einstein
Chemistry Lavosier and Dalton
Philosophy Socrates and Plato
Each of the founders of these fields--I could call them the “one namers”--while still read, glorified and occasionally worshipped, no longer dominates their field, having been replaced by other theories, schools of thought and thinkers. Many of their original ideas have since been debunked or completely reworked.
Let’s start with the best example, Darwin. He literally created the theory of evolution, found evidence proving it, and popularized it. But biologists are not Darwinists. I’ll let John Rennie, editor in chief at Scientific American, rebuking the documentary No Intelligence Allowed, explain:
“The term [Darwinism] is a curious throwback, because in modern biology almost no one relies solely on Darwin's original ideas—most researchers would call themselves neo-Darwinian if they bothered to make the historical connection at all because evolutionary science now encompasses concepts as diverse as symbiosis, kin selection and developmental genetics."
Darwin didn’t know about or describe bottleneck evolution, gene flow, punctuated equilibrium, and so on. You won’t find On The Origin of Species assigned in a biology class as a textbook. And all of this ignores Alfred Russel Wallace, who developed a theory of natural selection contemporaneously to Darwin.
Or take Freud, who Wikipedia calls “the father of psychoanalysis”, and who most Americans call the founder of modern psychology. Many, if not most, of his ideas have been completely disavowed.
Think about non-science fields. Contemporary textbooks explain every topic from anthropology to sociology. You don’t read writing manuals from the 15th century, you read The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. (And now modern writing teachers disavow that text.) So far, in my economics course at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, I haven’t seen a copy of The Wealth of Nations. However will I learn modern economics?
This applies to the humanities as well. One couldn’t overturn, say, the work of Herodotus, the first historian. His history still stands. Agreed, except that the study of history has evolved dramatically since the time of ancient Greece. Few history professors would recommend their students emulate his work habits or cite his history as fact; he’s been surpassed. So science, social science and the humanities have all evolved beyond what their preeminent founders believed.
Except the study of strategy. Doesn’t that seem...wrong? Did one 18th century philosopher really get it all completely right, and everyone else just pales in comparison?
Probably not. Clausewitz wrote important things about strategy that modern officers could use. But self-proclaimed “Clausewitzians” hold up Carl von Clausewitz to a level of religious zealotry that I will address tomorrow.